The Kent-Delord House Museum houses an astonishing collection of late 18thand early 19thcentury portraiture along with many other works of art. Among the artists included in our collection are: John Singleton Copley, William Johnston, Abraham G.D. Tuthill, Jared Flagg, Henry Inman, John Wesley Jarvis, Ezra Ames, Robert Fulton, and Samuel F.B. Morse. We even have a 1640 Renaissance painting attributed to the Frans Francken School!
The saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words! Well, we’ll shorten the number of words, and tell you the amazing stories about the people and history of some of the paintings that are hanging on the walls in the Kent-Delord House Museum.
Let’s start with the large portrait located in the dining room. This picture is quite striking because of its size and the unusual subjects in the painting.
Mehitabel Nott Webb Deane
Mehitabel Nott was born in Whethersfield, CT in 1732. Her father, Gershom Nott, was a sea captain. At age 17, she married Joseph Webb, Sr., a successful Whethersfield merchant who had ships trading in the West Indies. In 1752, he built a large house which stands today as a museum. After 12 short years of marriage and at the age of 34, Joseph Webb died, leaving Mehitabel a widow with three sons and three daughters.
Mehitabel, sought a legal adviser to help navigate the family finances and chose Silas Deane, a young lawyer, new in town, who had just passed his bar exam. The son of a Groton blacksmith, Deane had gone to Yale and studied law in Hartford. He married Mehitabel two years after Webb’s death and moved into the Webb house. They had a son, Jesse, a year later. With the growing family, Deane contracted to have a larger house built next to the Webb house. Sadly, Mehitabel died before the house was finished. She left behind seven children, the oldest-Joseph Webb, Jr. was 18, the youngest-Silas, was 3 years old.
William Johnston, Itinerant Artist
The portrait of Mehitabel was painted in1766 by William Johnston. He was the first painter to spend any significant amount of time in Connecticut Johnston was born in Boston and became lifelong friends with another Bostonian painter, John Singleton Copley. Johnston actually began his career as a musician, serving as organist at Boston’s Christ Church from 1750 to 1753, before he decided to become a painter. He then travelled to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut before returning to Boston where he married a widow with two children. By 1770, he had moved to Barbados, continuing to find work as a portraitist and receiving seventy-five pounds a year to play the organ. His last known correspondence was a letter to Copley asking him to paint a portrait of his sister. He died in Bridgetown, Barbados in early 1772.
It is important to understand the concept of itinerant painters of this time period. Itinerant artists might have worked for food and lodging or rented their facilities, staying in an area until all interested subjects had been painted before moving on. Some charged different rates depending on how much the sitter was willing to pay. These artists might have had some training or were just self-taught. Most did not sign their work. Painters were known to have used “props” (i.e., dress, jewelry, chairs) which they used over again in other portraits. Characteristic to some artists was the background, usually added after the subject was done, of a balcony scene or a seascape.
The Legend of Mehitabel’s Portrait
While most portraits from that time period are just the head and shoulders, Mehitabel’s is in the three-quarters format, one that Johnston used regularly. Art critics have generally pointed out that his greatest difficulty lay in attaching the sitter’s head to the body. You can see he compensated by adding a necklace, usually several strands of pearls high on the sitters neck. Comparing other known Johnston portraits reveals the same necklace on the subject. In fact, the dresses are also very similar, especially the sleeve ruffles and cuff treatment.
Also, the props in the picture are symbolic. At the time of the sitting, Mehitabel’s husband, Silas Deane’s fortunes were growing as well as his political ambitions. The portrait would be a way to show his status to the world. With Mehitabel is son, Jesse age 2, showing Deane has an heir. The book in her hand indicates that she is a literate woman. The parrot on her knee, an exotic bird, indicates she had the taste and wealth for exotic things. These props would establish that the Deanes had wealth and success.
Johnston had also painted Deane’s portrait in 1766. Notice in his portrait that Johnston had finished the background with a sea scene to show his sea trade enterprise.
The tragic part of Mehitabel’s story is that she was dying of consumption (tuberculosis) during the time she was sitting for the painting. It was believed that each time the artist came for a sitting, Mehitabel was “wasting away” due to the illness. One gets the impression that the “halo” effect next to her face is where the artist kept adjusting her figure. Most notable is the lack of a background scene, which would have been common for this type of portrait. The story (or “embellished history”) is that the artist was unhappy that his sick subject was no longer available, so he refused to complete the painting.
What ever did or did not happen, the portrait of Mehitable Nott Webb Deane is a part of the Kent-Delord House Museum’s story. She was the grandmother of Henry Livingston Webb, the husband of Frances Henrietta Delord. Since Frances and Henry’s daughter, Fannie Delord Webb, was the last descendant in the direct line of the Joseph Webb, Jr. family, she inherited her father’s estate which included this portrait and many others of the Webb family.
Oops, sorry! I’m very close to that thousand-word point! Guess that old saying is true!!